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The phonological status of words with exceptional superheavy syllables

This entry summarizes and combines exceptionalities in the behaviour of superheavy syllables. Superheavy syllables in Dutch have three core properties:

  1. they always end in a consonant
  2. they are strong attractors of primary stress
  3. they are restricted to word-final position


Generalization (1) expresses the basis upon which a superheavy syllable is defined; as a consequence, this generalization is necessarily obeyed by all syllables that qualify as superheavy. Yet although generalizations (2) and (3) are strong as well, neither of them is exceptionless. Counter to (2), there are words with final superheavy syllables that do not carry primary stress, and counter to (3), there are words with non-final superheavy syllables.

We can divide the set of words with irregular superheavy syllables into five general types. Some examples are summarized below; the examples are restricted to disyllabic words, yet some of these exceptions also occur in longer words. ‘V’ symbolizes a syllable with a full vowel, independent of whether this is an A-class vowel or a B-class vowel.

Example 1

a. Stressed non-final SH + V: ˈSH + V
      oorlog [ˈor.lɔx] war
b. Stressed V + unstressed final superheavy syllable: ˈV + SH
      ambacht [ˈɑm.bɑxt] craft
c. Stressed non-final SH + unstressed final SH: ˈSH + SH
      maarschalk [ˈmar.sxɑlk] marshal
d. Unstressed non-final SH: SH + ˈV
      bouillon [bul.ˈjɔn] broth
e. Stressed non-final SH plus schwa: ˈSH + ə
      aarde [ˈar.də] earth

In (1a), we find an non-final superheavy syllable; (1b) has an unstressed superheavy syllable; (1c) and (1d) both violate core principles: as (1c) has more than one superheavy syllable, there will necessarily be a non-final superheavy syllable, and one of the two syllables will not carry primary stress. (1d) has a non-final, unstressed superheavy syllable. (1e), finally, has an unstressed final syllable.

There have been attempts to integrate these data into the phonology of Dutch: it has been argued in Trommelen and Zonneveld (1989) as well as in Booij (1999) that words with irregular superheavy syllables may in fact be so-called prosodic compounds: these irregular words are argued to consist of two prosodic words, although there is no detectable morphological complexity. When analysed as consisting of two prosodic words, the phonotactic structure as well as the stress patterns of the words in (1a-1c) are entirely regular: on this assumption, these words can be treated as compounds with regular initial stress according to the Compound Stress Rule for nouns:

Example 2

oor + log [ˈor.lɔx] war
am + bacht [ˈɑm.bɑxt] craft
maar + schalk [ˈmar.sxɑlk] marshal

Further arguments in favor of analyzing words of these types as compounds come from pluralization. Words ending in a stressed syllable tend to take the plural suffix -en, words ending in an unstressed syllable take the suffix -s (Van Haeringen 1947; Booij 1981). The words in question take -en as suffixes, as e.g.:

Example 3

oorlogen wars
ambachten crafts
maarschalken marshals

However, the interpretation of words with irregular superheavy syllables as prosodic compounds does not work for words of the type (1d) and (1e); (rare) words like bouillon show exceptional final stress, even if regarded as compounds; still, a compound analysis is generally possible: there are nominal compounds with exceptional stress on the second constituent, such as stadhuis [stɑt.'hœys] city hall. Still, as noted in Booij (1999), the compound analysis is certainly not applicable in cases where the syllable following a word-internal superheavy syllable is headed by a schwa, as in (1e)schwa cannot carry stress, and thus, and it cannot form a prosodic word on its own (each prosodic word needs to have at least one stressed syllable, unlike e.g. function words).

  • Booij, Geert1981Generatieve fonologie van het NederlandsAula paperbacksUtrecht / AntwerpenHet Spectrum
  • Booij, Geert1999The role of the prosodic word in phonotactic generalizationsHall, T. Alan & Kleinhenz, Ursula (eds.)Studies on the phonological wordAmsterdam / PhiladelphiaJohn Benjamins47-72
  • Booij, Geert1999The role of the prosodic word in phonotactic generalizationsHall, T. Alan & Kleinhenz, Ursula (eds.)Studies on the phonological wordAmsterdam / PhiladelphiaJohn Benjamins47-72
  • Trommelen, Mieke & Zonneveld, Wim1989Klemtoon en metrische fonologieMuiderbergCoutinho